20. When the Time Comes, You’ll Improvise
Welcome to Journey On.
I’m Dave Schmelzer
In all of our continued need to grow and find encouragement during this unprecedented worldwide lockdown, some great mystics like Thomas Merton tell us that if we don’t miss a particular opportunity that’s here, we might get a very nice benefit out of all these constraints and suffering. And we’ll learn that we have a surprising power to improvise that will mean a lot both if things do in fact get hard for us, but also for all the time before that moment.
So this week, I’ll start with a few stories about good coming from bad that point to Merton’s insight. We’ll look at some key, famous Bible verses about the very real power of experiencing today on its own terms rather than bracing ourselves for possible suffering--maybe even very possible suffering--that could be around the next corner. I’ll introduce you to a psychologist who’s also a contemplative and has given this stuff a lot of thought. And then to an Indian-American business type who discovers, in visiting relatives in India, that his homeland has very real gifts to offer us when our world is chaotic. After hearing some deep thoughts from Merton and considering what might be the single most encouraging thing Saint Paul ever wrote down, we’ll close with what this Indian-American man, Bob Maglani, calls his “Embrace the Chaos Manifesto.”
Before I launch in, let me mention as I do each week that I help lead some pretty delightful, encouraging online groups along these lines that perhaps you’d enjoy checking out. We have one on Wednesday nights at 9pm Eastern time and another on Sunday nights at 6:30pm Eastern time. You’ll have a chance to connect with great, like-minded people from around the country and beyond. For information about how to get connected, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Okay! Kick us off, RyanHood, for: When the Time Comes, You’ll Improvise.
RyanHood theme music
I’ve led a few organizations over the years, both in the religion world and in the arts world.
And many years back, I began to get uneasy that one of them was about to implode. Others didn’t see it and thought I was oversensitive--you can hazard a guess here about whose story is about to be proved right.
And so, along with worrying about the cataclysm that might be on the horizon, I tried three or four things to head things off before they got bad. And then completely suddenly, things did fall off a cliff even worse than I’d been angsting over. None of my efforts to foresee and head off the problem helped at all.
But then something unexpected happened. After feeling the pain of the meltdown and feeling hopeless that anything could be salvaged, I had some completely new ideas that might not only preserve the organization, but might, as a throw-in, make it stronger than it had been. And, unlike my attempts to forestall the meltdown, these new ideas totally worked.
Or I think about another out-of-the-ashes story that might hit too close to home, but is certainly striking. It’s about the pandemic of 1918’s Spanish Flu that our current pandemic is so often compared to. So this has a largely happy ending, but if the last thing you want to hear is a story about a pandemic, skip ahead two minutes and you’ll be good.
So I mentioned last time that one way I’ve been passing the time is through reading detective novels, and I reread an early novel by the granddaddy of hard-boiled detective stories, Dashiell Hammett, who most famously wrote the equally wonderful The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. The novel I just read was the insane-yet-fun novel The Dain Curse. So that got me remembering stories about Hammett. He created the modern private eye story because he worked as a private eye, for the massive Pinkerton Agency, in his younger years. But then he enlisted during World War 1. He was not injured in the war, but he did catch the Spanish Flu during that 1918 pandemic. If it’s any encouragement during our current craziness, what’s happening during the coronavirus happily can’t compare to what happened then. More American soldiers died of the Spanish Flu than were killed in the war.
Anyway, that was the end of the Pinkertons for Hammett, because like so many of his fellow GIs, while he wasn’t killed by the Flu, he was incapacitated from it, as it might have triggered a dormant strain of tuberculosis in him--his mom had died of tuberculosis. So after the war, he was too weak to return to work with the Pinkertons so, trying to figure out some way to make a living as a tubercular man, he started writing stories about being a detective. And so he created a new genre, wrote some big hits, and became famous and, for some periods of his life, rich.
So, okay, it wasn’t all great times for him--he was an alcoholic by his later years and he died young. But just to say, this horrible turn of events did open up something amazing for him that would never have happened otherwise.
Both the Bible and some great spiritual teachers from around the world have related thoughts about how to thrive in uncertain times, and what happened to me and what happened to Hammett would fit the story they tell really well, and they throw in the added bonus of getting to those benefits with peace and joy along the journey there.
So here’s a famous verse along those lines that’s really helped me in the uncertainty of shelter-at-home and everything that comes with it.
The Lord is my shepherd;/ I have all that I need.
The first verse of the 23rd Psalm.
And this very famous verse is in a conversation with an equally-famous verse from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.
So Matthew 6(34) has Jesus commanding us:
Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
So this fits with classic spiritual wisdom--that our spiritual practice is meant to empower us to live in this moment, that all that we need is in fact in this moment. And after a few weeks of the pandemic, when I’d have a morning time of prayer and meditation, I felt that God was reminding me of these verses and each day was asking me if I had everything I needed for that day. And, on those terms, I could honestly say that I did. Even though several members of our large family sheltering together have, like so many others, lost their jobs since the pandemic began.
In fact--this might speak to my privilege, for sure--as I reviewed my whole life, it struck me that I’d never had a day when I hadn’t had everything I needed if--this was the key provision--I was just looking at that day. And that felt really encouraging in the uncertainties we all face now.
God’s track record of caring for me--again, I recognize that might not have been your story!--was nonetheless really comforting and I found my days turned out really encouragingly.
So the genius here, right, is being asked whether you have everything you need just for this day. Do you have what you need both to be provided for and for this to be a perfectly satisfactory day if you’re just looking at between now and when you’ll go to bed? There’s real power to that, as the 23rd Psalm and the Sermon on the Mount pitch. But it does raise all sorts of unanswered questions about what we actually need. And figuring out answers to those questions will go a long way towards showing us what it looks like to thrive even when things are so uncertain.
So here’s a first question to throw your way:
It’s well and good if our needs are met for today, even if our needs might have been met for most or all of our days of life so far--but nonetheless that doesn’t mean that we can’t reasonably forecast real trouble that could well come up sometime soon.
And all the more so now, with the sweeping economic and health impacts of the coronavirus. So is the Bible’s counsel here is that we just need to shine that on? I think there are a couple of ways that the Bible and the spiritual masters encourage us to think about that.
First, Jesus, in John’s gospel, tells us that we’re encouraged to be what he calls “blind”--but in a good way.
Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. (John 9:39-41)
Being blind here seems sort of like being a sheep in Psalm 23. It’s being still enough before God to lean into you not knowing how everything is going to be okay. But that being okay before God.
Contemplatives talk about this using another, related, term that also sounds bad but is reframed as good--being “empty.”
Here’s how this Harvard psychologist who is a contemplative--Mark Epstein, in his book Going to Pieces (Without Falling Apart)--talks about this:
In my sixteenth year, (having discovered) Samuel Beckett’s bleak view of the human landscape, I took an informal poll of all 47 members of my high school class and asked who among them was bothered by an inner sense of emptiness or insufficiency. Only the captain of the football team, a good-natured but decidedly unintellectual fellow, did not admit to harboring such a feeling.
So, as with being so-called “blind,” the power here is leaning into the emptiness, or maybe better put, observing it--as we’ve sometimes talked about on this podcast--from an alcove behind the waterfall of your emotions, thoughts and fears. Just looking at it as a watcher and not engaging with it or trying to fix it.
In this spirit, this is from later in Epstein’s book:
Stop trying to understand what you are feeling and just feel. Just pay attention to everything exactly as it appears and don’t judge it.
To ask our question from earlier in a mildly different way:
Do we actually have everything we need when tomorrow is so uncertain, however today goes?
If we just blindly, like the sheep in Psalm 23, enjoy that we have what we need for today and then things do in fact go south tomorrow, how should we think about that?
An interesting perspective on this comes from a man named Bob Miglani in his book Embrace the Chaos: How India Taught Me to Stop Overthinking and Start Living.
[Explain Miglani and tell a story or two.]
[Go to his arranged marriage stories and close with the enjoinder from his friend: “We’ll IMPROVISE.” Explain why this is important to Miglani.]
This, of course, goes back to the punchline of my two opening stories.
When my organization did go south, I realized I was both very motivated and surprisingly empowered to improvise in the moment. Dashiell Hammett’s improvisation when the worst happened to him is why anyone’s heard of him today. I recently read one literary critic debating whether he learned from Hemingway--he didn’t--or Hemingway learned from him--maybe--but that, either way, the two of them had created the central style of the American novel afterwards.
Hammett didn’t make it to the tenth grade. Things worked out, at least on that front, for him.
What do you think of this? That God, wanting you to experience the Lord as your shepherd and to lack nothing, wanting you to let today’s troubles be enough for today, has empowered that by giving you unexpected abilities to improvise when things turn south?
I think that’s a big idea! And might be a required idea if we want to take David’s and Jesus’s counsel to heart.
Okay, so here’s another question that might come up even if we do take David’s and Jesus’s words to heart and acknowledge that, if we’re just looking at the time horizon of now until tomorrow morning, our needs are in fact met.
But, even so aren’t there plenty of things we wish were true of our lives nonetheless?
Maybe we can find our way into a satisfying day today, but surely we have greater hopes for our lives than just living one relatively satisfying day?
I think this is where some of the power of blindness and emptiness comes in. The mystics suggest an image of ourselves, with our needs met just for today, being like a pond. And our goal is for our pond to be still. And the promise is that, as that’s so, we in fact do have everything in the pond we need, even for the big picture.
Here are some thoughts from the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton on what we get with this view of the world. The first thing he says we get if we live this out is a big thing indeed: We become a saint.
Here’s how he puts it in his book New Seeds of Contemplation.
The eyes of the saint make all beauty holy and the hands of the saint consecrate everything they touch to the glory of God, and the saint is never offended by anything and judges no (one’s) sin because (they do) not know sin. (They know) the mercy of God. (They know) that (their) own mission on earth is to bring that mercy to all (people).
The second thing he says we get out of this “let today’s own trouble be enough for today” view of the world is: We get out of our own way and discover who we actually are.
A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God. We can be ourselves or not as we please. We are at liberty to be real or to be unreal. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. Humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God. If you have the humility to be yourself, you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe. One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do not know what to make of (them).
When we’re not still as we live only in today, we get caught up in the froth of our ambitions or fears, and we--Merton argues--no longer know who we are. We’re living out of a false self that can never be satisfied and filled up, because it’s unreal. Trees and flowers can only be what they actually are and so, in this view, they’re “saints.” But we have a choice between our true and false selves. And since most of us have never had this put so starkly to us, most of us have been living out of who we’re in fact not. But what an opportunity you and I now have in front of us.
Finally he says, if we live this way: We might get unstuck.
It is not that someone else is preventing you from living happily; you yourself do not know what you want.
This is in the spirit of the previous point. As you--in an older translation--let today’s own trouble be sufficient for today. As you ask God if you have everything you need just for today, perhaps you will in fact discover what you want.
So let’s go back to the title of today’s Journey On: When the Time Comes, You’ll Improvise.
Let’s say that’s the case. Let’s recap and mildly fill out what that means for your day today.
Before we close with a charming manifesto along these lines from our friend Bob Miglani.
First, again, ask God if you have everything you need to be fully provided for just for today.
It starts there.
And it means that, rather than bracing yourself for the hard thing on the horizon, you revel in what’s happening right now and whatever comes is something you’ll deal with when it comes.
Most people--and every great spiritual teacher--says this is much easier to pull off with a daily contemplative practice. The Trappists recommend 20 minutes as a starting point.
Second, in the spirit of what happened with my imploding organization and with Dashiell Hammett,
Ask God to make you more than a conqueror, whatever happens.
This is quoting Saint Paul in Romans 8 (31-37).
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? ...Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
The idea of being more than a conqueror is that things that threatened to hurt you instead, because of God’s love, attention and power, actively help you. Without tuberculosis, we’d never have heard of Dashiell Hammett. Again, I’m not saying he’d agree to have tuberculosis to get those benefits--though he might--but just to note the surprising good that came from it. And without my organization's free fall, it couldn’t have found its actual footing. And of course you have many stories along those lines.
Ask God to make you more than a conqueror, whatever happens.
Let’s go back to our friend who wrote about India, Bob Maglani. He closes his book with an “Embrace the Chaos Manifesto” along these lines, which I’ll pass on in this own spirit if only because it’s so charming. For those of you trying to grow in the spiritual ways that Journey On talks about, just to note that I don’t believe Mr. Maglani is a theist of any sort, though he is a contemplative, for what that’s worth. If you want to refer to a written copy of it, it will be included in the transcript of this podcast at the hellohoratio.com site.
Here it is.
We are living in CHAOS.
LIFE is uncertain, unpredictable, complicated and fast.
ACCEPT what it is.
STOP overthinking, overplanning, overanalyzing and trying to predict the future.
LET GO of trying to control the chaos. Just control yourself, your thoughts, your words and your actions.
DO anything. Say yes.
SERVE a cause, a person or a purpose. When you can, take a trip and see the world.
TAKE ACTION. Your soul knows which way to go. Dig deep. Put your minds and hands to work. Small steps forward can lead to big, unanticipated leaps.
GO with the flow and enjoy the ride.
YOU ARE RESILIENT and know how to improvise. Give randomness and luck a chance to surprise. Let intuition and spontaneity be your guide.
DON’T WAIT. Things have a way of working out in the end.
Go ahead… EMBRACE THE CHAOS.
That’s it for this Journey On!
May your own chaos this week be richly filled with the presence and work of a good God who has you and your challenges very much in view.
See you next time.